My pick for a spring break book isn’t something that was recently written, or even a book that I’ve recently read. Instead, John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row is the basis of one of my most vivid reading memories: in middle school I picked it up one evening and simply didn’t stop. I was spellbound for hours, sitting at the kitchen table and briefly (don’t ask me why) lying on the kitchen table. In college one of my professors defined “the novel” as a fictional narrative that’s meant to be read in more than one sitting––evidently either Cannery Row failed that test or I did.
Cannery Row is not a page-turner in the conventional sense. It’s set during the Great Depression in the small, quiet, down-on-its-luck California fishing town of Monterey. (The “cannery row” of the title refers to sardine canning, the town’s main industry; today, after overfishing and a subsequent reinvention, Monterey is best known for a world-class aquarium.) The overall plot is virtually free of suspense, more or less an excuse for a series of vignettes about the town’s various characters: Doc, the universally beloved but deeply lonely marine biologist; Mack, the charismatic leader of the town’s generally benign petty crooks and drifters; Dora, the owner of the local brothel and pillar of the community (it’s that kind of town). Instead, what makes the novel so hard to put down is the loving detail with which Steinbeck renders the inhabitants of his Monterey and their lives, and his sometimes-funny, sometimes-wistful, always beautiful prose.
A friend recently wrote an essay about what he calls the “gentle novel,” a novel built around the pleasure and complexity of relationships between people rather than the fixation on trauma that has come to connote seriousness (this is not to say that trauma is a bad thing for art to focus on––it’s part of the world we live in, after all!––but the current trope of the “gritty reboot” shows what a numbing slog can result when it’s treated like the universal shortcut to artistic importance). I’m not sure whether or not Cannery Row qualifies as gentle. There’s intense misery, including more than once suicide, and a sense of quiet desperation throughout. But the novel has plenty of joy as well, and alongside that quiet desperation runs an also-quiet pleasure in simply being part of this world, a pleasure inseparable from the voice of Steinbeck’s narrator. That pairing of bitter and sweet winds up feeling a lot like nostalgia, though if it’s nostalgic it’s of a kind that never lets you forget how the “lost past” it depicts is itself already full of loss.
Cannery Row is not escapism in the classic sense––it doesn’t whisk you off on an adventure, or indulge your wildest dreams––but it does transport you to somewhere else. Maybe that’s part of its appeal now, when we’re looking to escape not from ordinary life so much as back into it: back into a world of acquaintances, back into life in public, the kind of unglamorous life we wouldn’t think to miss until it was out of reach. Steinbeck wrote it for that purpose during a very different crisis back in 1940s: it was intended, he later claimed, for a group of soldiers who asked for “something funny that isn’t about the war.” They got more or less what they asked for. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but even when it’s sad it’s not about the war––maybe that’s why I’m thinking about it now, as a novel that’s not about the pandemic either. It’s a novel that immerses you in someone else’s hometown, in the streets and in other people’s homes. You might even forget you’re not wearing a mask.